“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” ~ American Indian proverb.

"With all things and in all things, we are relatives." ~ Lakota (Sioux) saying.

“If you know that things are bound to happen whatever you do, then you may feel free to give up the fight against them.” ~ Karl Popper

13 February 2015

Moneyball, applied to politics

I recently finished reading Michael Lewis’s book ‘Moneyball’ for the third time: a true story about how a bunch of people, mostly outsiders, challenged collective group-think in American baseball using rational, scientific methods, bringing the first team to adopt these methods (the Oakland Athletics, or ‘A’s’) remarkable success despite having less money than its rivals.

It’s impossible not to draw lessons from Moneyball and apply them to other institutions and to politics. I couldn’t resist exploring them a little here, though the most tantalising lesson we might take, of attempting a completely rational, scientific approach to politics, is one I think we should resist.

The book is largely an exploration of prejudice in institutions and how the Oakland A’s through its General Manager Billy Beane took advantage of this prejudice to play the market in players, picking up valuable underrated ones for little and selling on those who had become overrated for a lot.
Billy Beane, still GM of the Oakland 'A's

This prejudice in baseball was largely about looks, with Billy Beane in his own playing career exemplifying it. As Lewis writes it,

“He encouraged strong feelings in the older men who were paid to imagine what kind of pro ballplayer a young man might become. The boy had a body you could dream on. Ramrod-straight and lean but not so lean you couldn’t imagine him filling out. And that face! Beneath an unruly mop of dark brown hair the boy had the sharp features the scouts loved. Some of the scouts still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man’s face not only his character but his future in pro ball. They had a phrase they used: “the Good Face.” Billy had the Good Face.”

Beane failed as a player and gave it up to work as a scout then as a manager. There he was lucky enough to work under someone who knew the works of Bill James.

James had started writing about baseball for a tiny audience while working as a night-watchman at a pork and beans factory in Kansas. Starting with a self-published monograph in 1977, he focused on baseball statistics, with increasingly detailed – and acerbic – explanations of how the Major League baseball community was getting badly wrong many of the things it took as self-evident.

Lewis says: “There was but one question [James] left unasked, and it vibrated between his lines: if gross miscalculations of a person’s value could occur on a baseball field, before a live audience of thirty thousand, and a television audience of millions more, what did that say about the measurement of performance in other lines of work? If professional baseball players could be over- and under-valued, who couldn’t? Bad as they may have been, the statistics used to evaluate baseball players were probably far more accurate than anything used to measure the value of people who didn’t play baseball for a living.”

Indeed. As for politics, applying the Moneyball approach is tricky because it’s based on rationality, calculation and statistical evidence, but politics isn’t just about these things.

Sure, in the short term at least you can maximise your electoral returns by detailed polling, tailoring of messages and policies, and targeting those voters who are most likely to swing the result in your favour. But doing this means relegating or sacrificing what is perhaps the essential element of politics: that visceral element of standing up for a version of the good, and of actually seeking to make a difference (rather than just being successful in the immediate task at hand).

The story of Moneyball looked at the market for baseball players in the United States and showed how inefficient its major actors had been within it. But in politics there is nothing inherently wrong with inefficiency. Everything is in play, unlike in baseball or financial markets where the end is simple: to maximise your resources and win.

Some will no doubt respond that in politics the end of winning is the same, especially in a democracy where the interests of voted-for and voters are in theory aligned. But this view means instrumentalising politics, accepting a deterministic reality (‘the world of change’ that Tony Blair talks about for example), and negating the power of politics to change things. It is also to accept a particular political ideology that reduces the sphere of politics to one in which many of those things which could be contested – efficiency as an end in itself, for example – are not; where consensus reigns behind a cloak of antagonistic competition.

This technocratic version of politics, applying a Moneyball-type approach of maximising one’s resources to win as an end in itself, sometimes appears ubiquitous in politics nowadays. Following this path offers great temptations: of immediate success, being useful, acceptance and approval from one’s peers, and therefore promotion within institutional hierarchies.

However, it was these aspects of institutional life, the group-think and collective wisdom, that the main protagonists of Moneyball were challenging in order to win.

Voros McCracken, a blogger who was later employed by the Boston Red Sox under John Henry (who in turn now owns Liverpool Football Club), is quoted as saying:

“The problem with major league baseball is that it’s a self-populating institution. Knowledge is institutionalized. The people involved with baseball who aren’t players are ex-players. In their defence, their structure is not set up along corporate lines. They aren’t equipped to evaluate their own systems. They don’t have the mechanism to let in the good and get rid of the bad. They either keep everything or get rid of everything, and they rarely do the latter.”

This sort of set-up should be familiar to most people for the institutions they know and work for, including those ‘set up along corporate lines’. Group-think and collective wisdom are surely an inevitable part of life, essential for us to be able to get through life without constant misunderstandings and petty disagreements.

But they do need to be challenged for institutions to renew themselves, adapt to changing times and maintain or enhance their relevance.

McCracken points to what I think is the most important lesson for institutions like political parties to take from Moneyball besides the basic one of evaluating people based on what they can offer rather than more superficial characteristics like looks. This is that however partial they be, they should try to institutionalise the capacity and ability to evaluate internally - truthfully and honestly - what they are doing.

They can do this through internal mechanisms of criticism but also through research conducted in an impartial manner, not to make political points but to examine how truthful and also how faithful to their values (if they have any) they are being. This way they strengthen their position by anticipating and addressing good criticism before it arises from outside, while bolstering their confidence that they are being consistent with their institution’s aims. As far as I am aware, the closest approximation to this sort of thing is the commissioning of independent polling and focus groups, which is fine as far as it goes but examines surface perception rather than underlying reality within the institution.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I’m thinking that for some of our main political parties this sort of thing could be the difference between a long life of continuing relevance and a relatively quick death.

For more on not dissimilar themes, see Labour and other party politics page.

3 February 2015

A Great British Institution

I wrote the title ‘A Great British Institution’ in part to shock and surprise, but also to tell a truth.

The institution I am talking about is the Royal Marines Band.

As a lefty, I’ve been naturally suspicious of militarism, pomp and pageantry and all the rest. But checking out the the Royal Marines Band online has helped to shift my thinking, and I think what they do is worth highlighting.

I would like to blather on about why, but it’s probably best to let you judge for yourself.

I've got three videos to check out. They are:

1) The Massed Bands of H.M. Royal Marines on Birdcage Walk in London on 4th June 2014. This shows how good they are: a stunning look and sound, helped by a little birdsong on the way (9 mins long)

2) A wonderful street parade in Basel, Switzerland, on 27th July 2013 - massed crowds, in blazing heat; they put on a terrific show (18 mins long)

3) In the same Basel Tattoo: the day performance in the arena on 25th July 2013; includes a great rendition of Rod Stewart's 'Sailing' and the famous 'drumline' (15 mins including other bands joining):

For lefties like me, the sounds and the symbols – for example the colonial-style helmets – may grate and alienate, but against this are a few considerations:

1) They are bloody good. They make a great sound and have terrific discipline and co-ordination;

2) Our armed forces are no longer a colonial force. They do what the government tells them to do, and if that means fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan, that’s what they do;

3) There are a lot of women in the Royal Marines Band and other military bands. They do not seem to hold many senior positions yet, but there is certainly potential there.

The lack of ethnic minorities is perhaps a concern. But I would rather the bands play and do their thing well, and attract people in by doing that.

Once you start privileging attributes other than standards, standards will probably slip. The Royal Marines Band is perhaps the best of its kind in the world. I'm thinking we would do better to emphasise that these bands and the military behind them represent the whole of Britain. There should be no closed shops and no favouritism.

But we should do what we can to make people welcome, not least because institutions can become set in their ways, alienating those who are not used to their particular cultures. 

For more on not dissimilar themes, see Britain - society and economy page

8 January 2015

On the essence of Islam

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Tony Blair as British Prime Minister moved quickly and effectively to establish that the Al-Qaeda suicide attackers were not being driven by Islam but a perversion of it, that Islam was a religion of peace, and that Britain, the United States and other countries were not fighting against Islam but against terrorism.

Blair’s reaction seemed admirable then and still does to a large extent today. At a difficult time he reacted swiftly, showed real leadership and established himself as a genuine statesman on the world stage. The words he chose seemed right and felt right. They surely helped stop a lot of nascent anti-Muslim feeling in its tracks, both in Britain and abroad, and contributed to a remarkable atmosphere of tolerance in Britain towards Islam and Muslims following 9/11 and other Islamist attacks in Britain and elsewhere.

Since leaving office, Blair has continued to preach the same line, that the ideology of ISIS or Islamic State for example is based on a "complete perversion" of the proper faith of Islam. Current Western leaders including David Cameron and Barack Obama remain wedded to that approach, declaring that the ideologies of movements like Al-Qaeda and ISIS ‘pervert Islam', ‘betray Islam’ or are "not a true form of Islam’.

As time has gone by, and Islamist terror has spreaded through countries from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Syria, Iraq, and around North and West Africa – in addition to the continuing threat in Europe and America – this approach seems less and less convincing. It seems that we may have been rather naive, projecting our hopes and desires on to the situation rather than seeing Islamic extremism for what it was, and is.

After all, what is the point about talking about ‘true Islam’ when supposedly ‘false’ or ‘perverted’ Islam is so successful and so widespread, attracting enough human, financial and organisational resources from Muslims around the world to roundly defeat government forces in so many places (governments that in several cases have received significant support from Western states). That is not to mention the mounting catalogue of horrific attacks in Europe, including those on Fusilier Lee Rigby in London and the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. This phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism is not going away; indeed it seems to be getting stronger.

But also, does Tony Blair, David Cameron or Barack Obama have any business telling Muslims what their ‘true’ religion is? Surely this is something for Muslims to discuss, not for non-Muslims with such obvious political motivations?

As well as looking rather insincere in their supposed expertise, what our leaders are saying by claiming to know the essence of Islam is that there is one true way with Islam, and they know what it is. This is also what the zealots on the other side are claiming, but the zealots also personally follow the path they advocate, for what is after all their religion, whether you or me or anyone sees it as somehow ‘true’ or ‘false’. Who would you believe if you were looking for guidance on the real Islam: the version presented by non-Muslim leaders like Blair, Cameron and Obama, or that of practising, committed Muslims who claim to be representing and defending Islam and Muslims and are practising what they preach? It is not difficult to see how devout Muslims suspicious of the motives of ‘the West’ and brought up on a diet of anti-Western propaganda, might lean towards the latter.

On reflection, and with the passage of time, this narrative of Western leaders seems to have been rather arrogant and presumptuous. It appears more suited as a short-term political argument – to mollify non-Muslim opinion in the West and prevent strife between domestic Muslim and non-Muslim communities (the idea of ‘community cohesion’) while not provoking powerful, resource-rich Muslim allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar which have been funding the spread of conservative Wahhabi Islam and sometimes supporting extremist Islamist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere.

As an actual truth, the idea that Islam is an inherently peaceful religion falls apart on an even cursory examination.

Like Christianity, Islam has long and overt associations with violence, conquest and absolutism, from well before Osama Bin Laden or Islamic State appeared on the scene. Just thirty years after the Prophet Mohammed’s death the doctrine of takfeer (condemnation or excommunication) was introduced by a purist group called the Kharijites, decreeing that those who did not follow God’s word precisely were ‘kuffar’, infidels deserving of death.  In AH 60 (661 AD), Islam’s fourth caliph Ali (who was himself renowned for the sword he wielded) was killed during Ramadan by a Kharijite using a poisoned sword, with his assassin proclaiming, ‘There is no authority except God, oh Ali, not you!’ Robert Lacey, who has written so well on modern Saudi Arabia, writes that Ali “became one of the earliest victims of Islamic terrorism” and in dying became the first martyr of the Shia, “starting them down their emotion-laden path of sorrow and faith” and thereby inaugurating the bloody Sunni-Shia split that remains today.

The idea that Islam is inherently peaceful is but one example of how discussions around Islam, Islamist violence and Muslims often see truth sacrificed to political expediency and wishful thinking – especially on the liberal-left but also among others who are wedded to globalisation and the modern world. We haven’t wanted Islam or Muslims to be a problem because it would be decidedly inconvenient if they were. Islam being a problem could damage our internationalist, tolerant and open-minded world-views, and also cause ructions in the developing world power system which depends on oil and gas (and, increasingly, wider investment) from conservative Islamic dictatorships in the Middle East.

So we stuck our heads in the sand and either tried to ignore or deny what was happening or, in the case of many old left types, joined the jihadis in blaming everything – including Islamist violence – on the West.

For more on not-dissimilar themes, see Identity Politics and the left, History and International and Philosophy, thought and literature pages.

16 December 2014

How Heidegger shows us the meaning of society

What is society?

It isn’t a thing or an object like other things or objects are. In that sense, Margaret Thatcher was broadly right in saying: “There is no such thing as society”. But we do use the word widely to refer to an ‘it’ – society – so though we cannot pin it down in the physical real world, society undoubtedly has a reality in consciousness, for us. We might for example think of it as a ‘subjective object’, albeit something which is not so much thought as felt.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger never wrote directly about society as far as I am aware, but his reflections on the nature of ‘being’ – of human beings and other beings, including the inanimate objects of our world – show how we are each connected into the world of other people and objects. As such he sketches out how what we might call the architecture or internal wiring of society works, and thereby provides us with a powerful way of conceiving what it is that makes ‘us’ us.

One of the few examples Heidegger gave in his writings on the being of objects is the hammer. The hammer’s ‘being’ is wrapped up not so much in its attributes like size, weight and the materials used in its manufacture, but in its being a hammer which we use for hammering – in this sense it is ‘ready-to-hand’ for us to hammer with.

A hammer, for hammering

But if I was a small child or came from a completely different culture and had never come across a hammer before, I’d be clueless about it. I wouldn’t know its name, what it was for or how it came into existence. Links of familiarity, significance, common language and customs give objects like hammers their meaning in our social world – this is what their being is all about in our everyday lives.

Taylor Carman, in his introduction to Heidegger’s Being and Time, says:

“Being is entities making sense (to us) as entities – even if only tacitly, dimly, unconsciously. Unlike entities themselves, then, being in a sense depends on us; it is not “out there” like some alien or occult phenomenon but resides entirely in the most mundane human experience.”

This mundane example of the hammer shows us something that we share with other people – an instant appreciation of what the object is, how to use it, and what to use it for. This is integrated into our own being as well as into the hammer’s being. What’s more, it is social, in that others share the same sort of relationship to a hammer. The hammer is therefore not primarily a separate object in terms of its being; it is physically separate yet at the same time bound up with the world of human beings who buy and sell it, use it and store it. It is part of us and us a part of it.

We would be justified in describing this way of looking at the world that Heidegger explores as a different dimension – an existential dimension of being that is radically different to the traditional dimensions that mainstream philosophy and everyday language uses. Those conventional dimensions of height, width, length and time for example are simple and familiar to us once we understand them. This existential dimension of being which Heidegger sketches out meanwhile carries human meaning and significance. In this dimension objects are defined (defined as what they are) always in relation to people, dependent on rather than abstracted from the understandings of those people. There is no validity or right and wrong here except as relations to particular understandings and interpretations. The hammer may be a hammer to me and you, but other people may understand and use it in a completely different way.

While the hammer’s being as a hammer unites those who are familiar with it in that way, it excludes those who are unfamiliar. This is nothing to do with exclusion by conscious thought and will; it rather follows automatically from what we might call ‘living in another world’ – either the world of a child who has not yet been socialised or of someone else who is not part of the same ‘society’ and would need to become attuned to the various understandings, familiarities and significances (like hammers being for hammering) to be a part of it.

Obviously this is almost always a question of degrees, not of being absolutely ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ a whole world of shared understandings, but this is the meaning of society which Heidegger’s insights point towards. It is an ethereal dimension in which the 'we', or 'us', is constituted.

Society is what we share

In this way, we might say that society is what we share. We can find it in the connections, understandings and familiarities that link us to objects in our world and to each other. A shared understanding and familiarity of what to do when we meet someone (shake hands? A hug? a kiss on the cheek? a kiss on both cheeks? ‘How Are You?’ ‘Fine’) – to do the appropriate thing – is a basic constituent of society. It is perhaps noteworthy that the English and those who share England as a space are often unsure what to do in this situation, which we might see as an element of how English society is not as strong, integrated and confident as some other cultures.

You can be a member of a society with people you have never met and will never meet. Likewise some people you know quite well might seem to be – and feel themselves to be – part of a different society, possessing different meanings and practices and using different reference points (for example watching television from their former home countries). In our globalising world, we can feel multiple overlapping familiarities and detachments with people and entities from all over, an indication of how we are getting even further from any idea of ‘society’ as a collection of people simply sharing space, like within the borders of a nation-state for example.

The ‘we’ or ‘us’ that we use in conversation is therefore open to many more interpretations and confusions. I might say: “We should question ourselves more,” but who am I talking about or talking to? It is far from clear, and is therefore a less rigorous statement than it might have been in earlier times. Indeed it is more like talking to the air, which is what an awful lot of political activity entails nowadays. As a writer for example you are speaking to a certain restricted audience while perhaps seeking to address a different, or wider, one. The most successful writers tend to address the audience they are speaking to, but often find themselves in silos by doing so, telling folks what they want to hear and not affecting many others or changing many minds.

Society and democratic politics

This increasing inability to conceive of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ readily is problematic for democratic politics, for it is more difficult to build up unified social and political movements based on shared goals and understandings when shared goals and understandings have dissipated. Indeed, our political parties find themselves determinedly dividing and demarcating voters into groups, making assumptions about them and targeting specific messages and policies at them as discrete, separate social units – effectively as micro-societies based on certain criteria (gender, ethnicity, age, occupation, and religion for example).

As they put us into boxes and treat us as part of grids like this, so they reduce our individuality; but they also take us away from any idea of a greater, wider society.

What Heidegger’s account of ‘being’ offers us is a distinctive way of looking at society – as not so much who we are as what we share with each other. (So, to provide one example it is less about what we look like, and more about what we do with what we look like – how we dress, do our hair, apply makeup etc.) On one level sharing refers to our basic understandings, familiarities and practices. But on another level is the more active meaning of sharing, as a deliberate act. (Again, this drawing in of others from the outside to the inside is something that those of us who share English or British culture tend to be rather weak at.)

When what we share gets stronger or weaker, so society as a meaningful ‘thing’ does also. Yet this ‘thing’ of society appears as what we might call an existential or metaphysical object, not a physical one. We can feel the strength and comfort it gives, and can also feel it ebbing away when we find ourselves in situations where we don’t share much with those around us. But we cannot reach out and touch it, nor can we see, hear or define it – because the dimension on which sharing exists is not physical but relational.

There is perhaps a lesson for political parties in this, my thoughts being on the Labour Party, of which I’m a member.

There is a tendency for all organisations and institutions to become increasingly mono-cultural over time as shared understandings, significances and practices get promoted within them and become more established. But by doing this they lose their wider affiliations and links into a wider society.

There is no getting around insider-outsider distinctions, and indeed those distinctions are part of the essence of democratic competition. But nevertheless it would be a good idea for Labour and other institutions to promote shared understandings and practices that come from a deeper place (the meaning of the institution itself for example) rather giving free rein to dominant groups to impose their particular ways across the board. Doing the latter can make the institution seem strong and united, but only on a limited basis with limited scope. If it is seeking widespread and even national legitimacy, it needs ways of reaching way beyond these groups and bringing in others.

This is one of the big challenges for democratic parties in the diverse world in which they find themselves: they need to actually build society themselves, on a wider basis than their existing tribal groupings, or else face further loss of legitimacy.

For more on similar topics, see Philosophy, thought and literature page.